Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Burr is one of a series of novels by Vidal providing a lively and incisive history of the American republic. Considered by many critics to be the finest of his historical fictions, Burr was followed by 1876 (1976) and Lincoln (1984). An earlier novel, Washington, D.C. (1967), centers on politics in the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Of these novels, Burr has the most complex narrative structure and the smoothest integration of fictional and historical characters.

Charles Schuyler is fictional, and his own story, involving an intricate balancing of private and political life, is the Burr story in a minor key. Historical novelists often have difficulty making their passive heroes, who are usually devoted to domestic life and unwillingly involved in historical epochs, sufficiently interesting, but Schuyler is like a more modest Burr in his adventuring, in his sad affair with Helen Jewett, a prostitute whom he tries to live with and marry. Schuyler has almost betrayed Burr, as did James Wilkinson, who turned into Jefferson’s stooge, and Schuyler almost becomes William Leggett’s lackey in the plot to bring down Van Buren, who is Burr’s protégé.

For the most part, Vidal has stuck to the facts and to the chronology of history, since it is his purpose not only to entertain but also to advance provocative notions concerning the motivations of historical figures, notions of a kind that historians, relying only on data and guarding their professional reputation, are reluctant to venture. Extrapolating from the known personalities of historical figures, he creates dialogue and description that capture history in the making.